Well, I’m back with a with another book review, and this time I am utterly delighted to be reviewing an Aussie novel – and a Queensland one at that! Honestly, it’s not every day I get to read a book by a Queenslander, and in this case, one I know!
Today I’m reviewing Origin Curse by Sarah Kate Ishii, who is also my wonderful publication coordinator and proofreader. Origin Curse is the first book in a planned upper-young-adult trilogy by Ishii, and it’s also her debut novel. So, let’s dive in!
Origin Curse opens in Hié where we meet Yoshiko, daughter of the daimyō of her province. Yoshiko is a 17-year-old noble with a warrior mother, a diplomat father, and a hereditary curse that brings incredible power at a potentially devastating cost. When her familiar world crumbles around her, Yoshiko is forced into the outside world in a way she could never have expected – or wanted.
The first thing I will say about this novel is that I loved Hié. It felt so genuine, real, and rich. From the descriptions of palace grounds to the depiction of it’s culture, I was sucked into Hié and didn’t want to leave (I was actually quite sad when Yoshiko inevitably departed her home!). This is where Ishii shines – creating a real, genuine setting and culture that exudes such warmth and reality. As we take this journey with Yoshiko, she falls in love with her homeland, and so do we. From the people to the landscape to the food, Ishii write Hié as a place that, at its heart (if all were at rights), is so warm, joyful, and welcoming. I loved it.
I also loved the way mythology was interwoven in the story – particularly when it comes to Yoshiko’s curse. The depth mythology brings to fantasy stories is undeniable, and while I could have included this a little earlier when I first mentioned culture, I think it deserves it’s own little paragraph. The mythology and history of Hié brings so much to the story and roots it in a past that feels real and believable.
Now, into the key players!
I really enjoyed Yoshiko. Right off the bat, it’s refreshing to see a young character who has healthy relationships with her parents. Seeing the way Yoshiko thinks of and looks up to both of her parents was deeply heartwarming; while the way she still relies on and looks to them for advice and support felt familiar and realistic.
But there’s more to Yoshiko than her lovely family. She is, in some ways, quite naïve to the world beyond her palace complex, but that lack of knowledge never comes across as annoying. Instead, Yoshiko’s generally hopeful outlook is tempered by her experiences throughout the novel. What results is an optimism (though it is shaken almost to breaking point on more than one occasion) that is gentle, stubborn, and determined. Then, of course, there is the curse. Yoshiko’s internal struggle throughout the novel in many ways comes down to an inner battle as she fights with the curse within her – and it’s potential for destruction.
Gora is perhaps my favourite character. He’s a complex young man (though not as young as Yoshiko) with an equally intricate backstory. A foul-mouthed drinker with a heart of gold, we meet Gora living a simple life in Hié. Over time as we learn more about him, his behaviours and decisions all fall into place to craft a deeply sympathetic character you want to see succeed. He’s, by far, not the near-impossible-to-deal-with grizzled grump we sometimes see in fantasy; instead, he’s a genuine person who cares enough about the people around him to not only want to do the right thing, but to put himself in harm’s way to do it.
Dragon daimyo Asumi seems like a force of nature – wild, powerful, and almost unstoppable. Right from the beginning we see the strength held within her, and we see it through the eyes of her admiring daughter, Yoshiko. It’s easy to understand how she has maintained hold of the title of daimyō despite the constant political tensions with Hié’s neighbours, and her actions spur the story forward and leave permanent ramifications.
Haruki is Yoshiko’s maid, and her presence pervades Origin Curse. Though she’s only physically present for part of the novel, her importance to Yoshiko exerts a powerful force that, in part, helps drive Yoshiko forward (though she is certainly not the only driving force!). Haruki’s sweetness, kindness, and genuine friendship is not only touching, but almost a relief to Yoshiko – and therefore us as the reader – who is constantly surrounded by respect for her position that seems almost unyielding to the potential for genuine friendship and honesty.
Nubia is introduced part way through Origin Curse, and immediately I warmed to her. I love a capable character, and not only is Nubia capable, but she’s determined, strong, and loyal. I’d love to dive into her backstory, but that would be a spoiler, so instead I’ll just say I really, really felt for her and what she had gone through to come into contact with Yoshiko.
Alright, I’ll stop here on the characters, and chat a little about the plot.
First, a mild disclaimer.
I read Origin Curse in a way that felt a little stilted. I confess I’ve been quite busy, in the middle of preparing to meet the newest member of our family, and except for odd nights here and there when I had time (and energy!) to read, most of the book I read during my 30 minute lunch breaks at work. It meant it was hard for me to get into a rhythm with the book, because often I’d only get a couple of chapters (if that) in before my alarm went off and I went back to work.
When I don’t get into a rhythm it can be hard for me to comment on the pacing. That said, reflecting on the shape and progression of the story, I think it was paced excellently. The story was always moving forward with time for character growth and quiet moments in between scenes of greater action.
The plot itself I found quite unusual in a great way. For much of the novel I wasn’t entirely sure where it was going, where it would end up, and what the consequences would be for our characters along the way. Which is exactly what you want in a book! I love that sense of being along for the ride with no real idea of where it will take me. Part of this was because I knew it was the first book in a trilogy (which naturally made me wonder what plot threads would or wouldn’t be resolved by the end of book one), but a lot of it was due to the unique plot line. I’ve not read a book quite like Origin Curse, and that’s a good thing! It’s one of the things I love about indie books – authors have so much freedom to write their own unique tales, and it really pays off when you come across a book so refreshingly different – yet nonetheless very well constructed, as Origin Curse.
There are several big themes that stand out as I reflect on Origin Curse. It’s tricky to touch on themes too much in a review, because I don’t want to give anything away, so let me keep this short and sweet. First is the theme of slavery. Again, without saying much, the depiction of slavery (in multiple forms) was very well done – the brutality, the mass kidnapping, the breaking of wills. There’s a lot I could (and would love to) say on this, but for now I’ll just say it’s a big theme, and I think it was done well.
Another theme that stood out is the importance of community – close friendships, wider support networks, and your overall ‘village’. From the beginning of the novel when Yoshiko’s life is mostly confined to a small area and small group of people, as her circle widens and she interacts with others, she learns the value of having others around her who care, who can support her, and whom she can draw on for strength and determination.
Lastly, I’ll mention feminism. Without getting political, I’ve noticed an unpleasant tendency in society for some to take feminism as uplifting women to the point of belittling, dismissing, or even outright hating, men along the way. What I found refreshing about Origin Curse was that it was, absolutely, a feminist novel – but a feminist novel in what I think of as a healthy sense. Origin Curse is filled with strong female characters who aren’t just strong in the ‘I’m as good as a man’ sense, but strong in a feminine sense. By that I mean they were women who built strong friendships, drew community about them, cared for others and desired peace – and were willing to do all they could for it. And yes, Yoshiko also really knows how to handle a weapon. It would have been easy for Ishii to leave all the talent and capability to the women, but instead she also crafts intelligent, compassionate, brave, and protective men (like Yoshiko’s father and Gora) who have shaped and supported Yoshiko and are crucial to her achieving her goals. It’s a wonderful group of characters with their own unique traits and abilities, that lift each other up in their efforts to accomplish what seems like the impossible.
Before I wrap up, I do want to touch on content/triggers. While I definitely don’t read exclusively Christian books, they certainly have dominated the books I’ve reviewed here recently. So, just for pure clarity, Origin Curse is not a faith-based novel.
Secondly, for those who are sensitive to strong language, swearing is present throughout the novel. Personally it didn’t bother me for a few reasons. One, probably because, let’s face it, I’m Australian, and it’s the kind of language I hear in my day-to-day anyway. Two, it made sense. For me, I only really get frustrated at swearing when it seems (1) unnecessary, (2) excessive and/or (3) unrealistic. This is not the case in Origin Curse. Here, only specific characters swear, and it makes perfect sense for them. Other characters don’t, or, if they do, they do so rarely. The way a character speaks is fundamental to understanding their backstory, their position in society, their personality, and I think the decisions Ishii made here enriched the characters and even demonstrated their character growth as their dialogue reflects their journeys.
As I mentioned earlier, one of the key themes of Origin Curse is the impact of slavery. Along with such a theme, it’s natural the novel contains instances of violence, assault, and sexual assault. I believe the novel falls into the upper YA category, and I think the depictions of these events are appropriate for that minimum of an upper teenage maturity level. They’re described of course, but not in a way that seems excessive or unnecessarily graphic. I think it’s utterly crucial to depict these events (albeit in an age/genre appropriate way) when they’re important to the story. To not depict them would be to shy away from the reality of (in this case) slavery and what it has meant throughout history for countless people. That said, it would absolutely be a trigger for some, which is why I feel it is important to mention here.
So, that’s my review of Origin Curse! A unique, delightful, challenging adventure through a world with resemblance to our own, but with a little more magic mixed in. Featuring strong characters, a compelling plot, and well-written action, I found Sarah Kate Ishii’s debut novel to be a delight and a great opening for more books to come!